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The History Corner: Guide to Archival Research

Mike Zickar
Bowling Green State University

With any serious historical research, a trip to research archives is usually necessary. Archives typically hold unpublished information such as manuscripts, correspondence, technical reports, lecture notes, and/or personnel records.  This information is often useful in providing revelatory information that may shed light on a particular topic that could not be properly understood using published information.  In fact, the analysis of unpublished information is often considered necessary for top-notch historical research. In short, archives can be a goldmine for historians, though navigating archives can be difficult. In this History Corner, I provide some advice as well as some lessons learned for beginning historical researchers. 

Some archival tidbits.  Before getting into the mechanics of how to conduct archival research, I thought it would be helpful to provide a summary of some of the interesting things I have found while scouring archives.  While working on a biographical article on Arthur Kornhauser, I visited the Wayne State University archives.  He was hired away from Columbia University in the early 1950s during the McCarthy Era.  In the personnel file was a telegram sent by the dean to Kornhauser stating that he did not need to answer the item “Do you pledge loyalty to the United States?” when he filled out the employment application. It turns out that Kornhauser was active in civil liberties groups (he would later be the president of the Detroit Area American Civil Liberties Union), and the dean was worried that Kornhauser might answer “no” out of protest.  In fact, within the personnel files there was the completed application form—that question was left unanswered!

The Carnegie Mellon University has the archives of Walter Van Dyke Bingham, one of the founders of the field and the leader of the first graduate program in industrial-organizational psychology.  The Bingham archives are rich in correspondence, including letters to and from Bingham as well as lots of memos related to the graduate program at what was then called Carnegie Institute.  Bingham wanted to hire a person named Whiting Williams who had no formal training in psychology but had written several popular ethnographical accounts of workplaces across the United States and Europe.  Within those archives is a memo from the famous quantitative psychologist L. L. Thurstone complaining to the dean that Whiting should not be hired because his research lacked rigor.

I had never seen either of these two documents cited before and they add two bits of colorful information to two important instances.  The first provides a nice small snapshot into the background of a progressive academic in a time of campus repression.  The second provides insight into the tensions that would later develop between quantitative (Thurstone) and qualitative (Whiting) researchers.  Both of these pieces of information help provide a richer bit of context to the historical stories that lie behind them, and these bits of information would not have been available unless I visited the archives. 

Archival Visits

Identify Appropriate Archives
The first step is to identify appropriate archives that might be useful for your historical research.  There are several types of archives to consider.  The first would be general archives that tend to have lots of information related to applied psychology.  The first stop should be University of Akron’s Archives of the History of American Psychology (AHAP).  The AHAP contains the papers of many important figures within psychology as well as the archives for Division 14 and other important institutions.  Other important archives include the Library of Congress as well as Carnegie Mellon (Bingham) and Northwestern University (Walter Dill Scott).  Depending on who or what you are studying, though, you may find that other archives throughout the country have important documents.  For example, many universities will have archives with information about the faculty who worked there.  One of the best first steps is to use Internet search engines creatively.  For example, entering the name of the person you are interested in along with “archives” often results in useful leads.

Before Heading to the Archives
Once you have identified a potentially useful collection, it is extremely important that you correspond with someone at the archives about your research questions and interests before visiting.  I have found e-mail inquiries to be the most helpful initially.  Afterwards, you can follow up with phone calls.  Explain what it is that you are interested in researching as well as potential dates that you may visit.  Archivists know their collections better than anyone else, and they will be able to provide some insight about whether a visit will be fruitful or a waste of time.  They may also be able to think of other information that might be in the archives that you would not be able to find by yourself. 

Also, try to request a finding aid for the collection that you are interested in.  Finding aids give an overview of what is available in a particular collection.  The AHAP has their finding aids online, which is extremely helpful.  Some aids are quite detailed whereas others provide minimal information of what is in the collection.  This information will be helpful though in narrowing down what you need to look at.

Finally, before heading to the archives, get a list of rules and regulations.  For example, most archives allow pencils but not pens.  Bring your own paper to take notes and perhaps some change to make photocopies.  Find out the regulations beforehand so that you don’t waste time or annoy the archival staff.

On Your Visit
Be friendly to the archival staff and respect their rules.  They can help you and probably will if you do not annoy them.  Be prepared to be tired and fatigued, and so plan some flexibility.  It is tiring to look through reams of documents.  Oftentimes you are looking through a series of memos or letters or papers, unaware of what you are looking for, you scan and speed read, hoping to skip unimportant information to focus on the important stuff.  Therefore, take breaks frequently.  And be prepared to extend your visit longer if you find that there are important documents that you did not know existed.

Take detailed notes of the information that you find as well as the location (folder, bin, etc.) of where you found that information so that you can find the materials again and/or properly cite the document if needed.  Some archives let you photocopy information at a low cost; others require you to hire the archival staff at a hefty price.


Archival research is the most rewarding (and exhausting) aspect of historical research.  Finding new gems that no one else had ever discovered or at least reported is a hallmark of historical research and helps future researchers provide a fuller understanding of the past.